A long-time reader and friend is intrigued by the politics of the Paul Ryan-Newt Gingrich controversy over the Medicare reform component of the House budget. He writes:
The Ryan budget represents, in part, a political power play by its author. Ryan understands that his plan has no chance of becoming law this year or next. His goal is to shape the budget debate and, if possible, dictate the Republican position in that debate. I have it on very good authority that Ryan specifically intended through his budget proposal to constrain the eventual Republican presidential nominee on the core issues that his plan raises.
From Ryan’s perspective this power play makes perfect sense. Ryan believes fervently in the merit of his budget proposal (with good reason, in my view). So it is natural that he wants to make it, effectively, the Republican Party’s proposal. Moreover, Ryan’s approach cannot become law without the support of a Republican president. Thus, it would have been naïve for Ryan not to want to hem in the Republican presidential field.
Ryan’s power play, though natural, is also audacious and, if successful, would probably be unprecedented. In the past 50 years, as far as I can recall, only Newt Gingrich has able to exert, from the House of Representatives, the kind of influence Ryan seeks to exert here. And Gingrich did so from his position of Speaker, not as a committee chairman.
But now let’s consider the matter from the perspective of a legitimate contender for the Republican presidential nomination. From this perspective, Ryan’s power play seems unwelcome. A rational candidate would always want the maximum freedom to stake out policy positions. And he certainly would not want to come under pressure a year and a half before the election to take a potentially unpopular position on Medicare reform.
Instead, such a candidate would want to wait until the primary season (or later if it were possible) and then balance his need to appeal to the conservative base by backing serious Medicare reform against the risk in the general election that such a position would present. The candidate would also, one hopes, take into account the merits of Ryan’s proposal, as well as less dramatic alternatives. But he would be mindful that, absent victory in November 2012, any serious Medicare reform is probably a non-starter.
It was in this context that David Gregory, with explicit reference to the politics of the situation, put his question to Newt Gingrich. In my view, it was reasonable of Gingrich not to embrace Ryan’s plan. But the former Speaker went too far. First, he did not offer an option-preserving response, as my hypothetical rational candidate would have; instead he attacked Ryan’s approach. Second, he did so in strident, obnoxious terms, dismissing as “social engineering” a serous proposal to get the budget under control.
Why did Gingrich blunder in this fashion? Partly, I believe, because he doesn’t appreciate being “played” by Ryan. Partly, I suspect, because he resents the fact that Ryan is pulling even with him in the annals of audacious leadership from the House. Finally, one cannot discount innate intellectual arrogance as an explanation for the former Speaker’s attempt to lump Ryan’s plan with one of the worst features of liberal public policymaking – social engineering.
Where do things stand now, In light of the well-deserved backlash? Just about where Ryan wants them to stand, I believe. As the estimable policy star Yuval Levin, one of Ryan’s biggest cheerleaders, put it yesterday, “Whatever else may be said about this week’s Gingrich contortions, one thing is clear: Paul Ryan and the House Republican budget have the strong support of an exceptionally broad array of conservatives–from the DC establishment to the talk radio world to the grass roots and the Tea Party. . . All contenders for the Republican nomination should take note.”
They should, indeed. But those contenders with a serious chance of facing the full electorate, not just a broad array of conservatives, should proceed with caution. It was Gingrich’s rush of blood to the head, not his instinctive understanding of the risks associated with unequivocal support for the Ryan budget, that landed him in so much trouble.